Jazz violinists are a courageous bunch. To take up a bow in the horn-dominated world of jazz has always required a strong constitution and a sense of adventure. From Joe Venuti's seminal swing to Jean-Luc Ponty's redefinition of the violin as a fusion instrument, only a relatively small cadre of musical pioneers have succeeded in staking out a place for the violin in the mercurial history of jazz. As jazz heads into its second century, the violinist leading the charge may well be Regina Carter.
Modest and prone to laughter, this young Suzuki-trained Detroit native seems like an unlikely candidate for this dangerous mission. At first blush, her recordings seem to cover so much ground that it's difficult to pin her down to any particular style. But seeing her in concert, the dots connect and Regina's exuberant musical personality becomes the common thread weaving together her improvisational sorties, be they based on big band, Motown, or even classical themes.
I was fortunate to catch her not once but twice on her recent nationwide tour, at Yoshi's Jazz House in Oakland, California, and at Boston's Regatta Bar. Both are intimate clubs with excellent acoustics, where practically every seat is close enough to make you feel part of the band. In each of her remarkably different sets, Regina's playing, warm and lyrical, was laced with surprises. A quiet, relaxed introduction would lead, a few choruses later, into a take-no-prisoners flurry of notes; a laid back sultry blues would morph into an explosive riff with all the power of a big band. Like a good storyteller, she used her incredible vocabulary of violinistic technique to play to the listener's imagination -- wide slides, Stuff Smith-like double stops, percussive jabs, tender harmonics, and pizzicato chords all added colorful details to her fascinating tales.
I've heard that you started out as a Suzuki violinist.
Yeah, I'm a Suzuki-ite [laughs]. I started when I was four. My mom's a retired kindergarten teacher and she felt like we should be exposed to music. My older brothers were taking piano and she said one day I walked up to the piano and started playing a piece that one of my brothers was working on. So the teacher said, "She's got a gift. Let's give her piano lessons." But at two, I didn't want to sit there and learn how to read music. I wanted to compose my own pieces and just play by ear. So they stopped the lessons, so I wouldn't start to dislike music.
You had started on piano at two?
Yeah. So, at four, because they were offering Suzuki for the first time in Detroit, this teacher thought it would be great, because it's teaching by ear -- the same way children learn how to talk. So it was perfect. I loved it and took right to it. I don't think my mom expected me necessarily to be a musician.
You stuck with it, obviously.
I studied European classical music all the way through my second year of college. But I didn't even hear any jazz growing up because I had to listen to the records that my teacher would send home for us to listen to. And I would hear Motown in the back, because my brothers were blasting their Motown records and Beatles and that kind of stuff. So it was seeping in there, you know!
Did you ever try playing along with any of those things?
No, I didn't even think to. It wasn't until I was in high school when someone brought me records of jazz violinists. That was my first exposure to jazz and that was all I associated jazz with -- these violin players! Then I started hearing all these records on the radio, these pop records that had string parts in it. And I joined a band and another violinist and myself, we would learn all the string parts and play these gigs and play the string lines.
What kinds of things were you listening to then?
Then it was Jean-Luc Ponty and Noel Pointer and Stéphane Grappelli. And I had a Michael White album, then Michael Urbaniak, and L. Subramanian. And then the pop stuff on the radio, the Motown stuff that had all the strings. It opened my ears up. "Wow, there's a lot of music out here that has strings and it's not classical music. This is wild!" I think I never paid attention to it before.
So when you got all those non-violin jazz records, did you continue listening to them?
Oh no, those I put away! It wasn't until many years later that I could really appreciate those records. In fact, in my third year of college, my big band teacher told me to stop listening to violin players, "because there are not enough of you out here and you're going to pick up their little idiosyncrasies on the instrument and sound too much like them. There doesn't need to be another Jean-Luc or Stéphane Grappelli. You need to have your own voice." So he suggested I listen to horn players and singers and learn about breathing and vibrato, and just get the language, the vocabulary down. I was the only violinist in big band, so he put me in the saxophone section. I transcribed their charts. He'd say, "Just copy what they're doing." Which I think was great, because I was becoming a horn player.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Winter 04/05 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]